Great Elephant March

Great Elephant March

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: January
Where Celebrated: Trichur, Kerala, India
Symbols and Customs: Festival, Pooram Reenactment
Related Holidays: Pooram

ORIGINS

The Great Elephant March takes place each year in Trichur, Kerala, a coastal village on the Arabian Sea in southwestern India. Elephants are an integral part of daily life for the people of Kerala, who have a long history and tradition as highly skilled elephant trainers. Keralans train elephants to perform routine and ceremonial tasks such as carrying or pulling heavy loads and bearing people as riders.

Also known as a gajamela (elephant pageant), the Great Elephant March is staged especially for tourists but is also attended by many Kerala citizens. More than 100 elephants are dressed in elaborate regalia made of gold and decorated with jewels. The elephants, each with riders carrying ornately decorated parasols, walk in a parade from Trichur to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala's capital city. When the parade arrives in Thiruvananthapuram, the POORAM ritual is observed. This includes the P OORAM REENACTMENT of the meeting of deities, followed by a FESTI VAL . The word pooram means "meeting," and the original purpose of the event was for the gods and goddesses of neighboring provinces to meet ceremonially on an annual basis.

The Great Elephant March is part of the Hindu tradition, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, but they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Festival

A festival begins after the POORAM reenactment is complete. Festival activities include elephant rides, elephant feeding, an elephant tug-of-war, boat races, folk dancing and music, martial arts demonstrations, and various cultural performances and exhibitions. The festival concludes with a fireworks display.

Pooram Reenactment

The Great Elephant March includes a reenactment of part of the POORAM observance held each year in Trichur. Upon arriving in Thiruvananthapuram, the elephants divide into two rows. The rows separate and circle around to meet in front of the local temple, with each elephant carrying Hindu priests. The central elephant in each row carries a figure representing a Hindu deity. When the elephant rows meet, the riders pass their parasols back and forth in a complex performance that is accompanied by lively music and intense drumming. The spectacular display of color, movement, and music is a highly anticipated event that draws a large crowd of observers.

FURTHER READING

Lamba, Abha Narain. India. New York: DK Publishing, 2002.

WEB SITES

Indian Government Ministry of Tourism www.incredibleindia.org

Kerala Tourism Board www.keralatourism.org
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